Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Signs of recovery despite challenges of pandemic, says Victoria mayor

Housing, or the lack of it, has continued to be a major challenge.
"It's been a very difficult year, but what's remarkable to me is how much has continued to happen in the city, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said, looking back on 2021. Helps will not be running for re-election in October. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Leading B.C.’s capital city during a pandemic that has dragged on for nearly two years has felt like two full-time jobs to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps.

One job to keep the regular operations of the city going and a second to manage the pandemic, which brings new challenges constantly.

“I think about the people who were mayor of Victoria during the First World War and the Great Depression and the Second World War, because this does feel like a big global, life event like that,” Helps said in a year-end interview. “It’s very, very challenging.”

That the city has continued to work on long-term projects in 2021, like Topaz Park improvements, building the all-ages-and-abilities cycling network and planning neighbourhood villages, while providing regular services and managing a pandemic stands out to Helps.

“It’s been a very difficult year but what’s remarkable to me is how much has continued to happen in the city,” she said.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic and the economic shock it brought for many businesses, the city is seeing signs of recovery downtown.

Supporting and tracking the positive economic trajectory in the city stands out as a highlight from 2021 to Helps.

In response to negative chatter about the state of downtown Victoria, the city started collecting data in 2021 tracking pedestrian numbers, downtown parking use, building permit applications and other metrics that showed signs of recovery starting in the summer that continued into fall.

“People love downtown, they come downtown. Our businesses, all things considered, are doing pretty well. Tourism industry, which was really hard hit, and I guess still is, is doing okay, so I think for me, that was a real highlight to just look at the facts and look at the numbers,” Helps said.

While some cities see higher retail vacancy rates and office buildings clear out, Helps sees the opposite happening in Victoria — new businesses and big developments like the 12-storey Telus Ocean office tower slated for Douglas and Humboldt streets.

The latest quarterly update, released in November, showed an increase in pedestrian traffic, parking, and business licences, with just over 600 business licences issued from August to October 2021, versus 476 during the same period in 2020.

Housing, or the lack of it, has continued to be a major challenge. Most of the 200 people living in city parks at the start of 2021 moved inside and stayed inside, on the path to permanent housing. Helps is focused on the roughly 10 per cent for whom the available housing options didn’t cut it and making sure there will be somewhere suitable for those with the most complex needs as early as possible this year.

Along with mayors of other major B.C. cities, Helps has been advocating for the province to move quickly on complex-care housing.

“I’d like to see all the work that’s happened in 2021 to set up complex-care housing made manifest as early as possible in 2022, because that is really having a negative impact in so many ways. Mostly on the people who are living outside because the current health and housing ecosystem doesn’t meet their needs,” she said.

She has other big goals for her last 10 months in office, including completion of the city’s bike network, except for one leg on Pandora, the launch of a pilot project that would send mental health professionals instead of police to non-violent mental-health crises, and major zoning changes to encourage the building of “missing middle housing.”

She sees her job as setting the city up for success 50 years down the line.

“Hopefully some of the policies that we’ve put in place and the actions we’ve taken over these past, what will be eight years, are leaving a good legacy for the next 50 years, not just for these four or eight. That’s the goal,” Helps said.

Helps said she’s not sure what she’ll do when her eight years in the mayor’s chair come to an end in October.

If she had to pick someone to replace her, Helps said she sees Coun. Marianne Alto, who has been at the council table for a decade, as the most “supportable” mayor, calling her non-­ideological and balanced. Alto has not yet declared whether she’ll run for mayor.

Coun. Stephen Andrew announced in November he intends to run his second mayoral campaign. Other councillors might still be considering a mayoral run, Helps said.

“It’s going to be very interesting to watch,” Helps said of the October election.

[email protected]